Over and over again, we have been admonished not to make fun of poor folks who were dupes of the now faltering Ponzi scheme, MMM. We have been enjoined to be empathic, to spare those who have their money trapped in the scheme our sharpened tongues and the smug I-told-you-sos. We have been rightly reminded that Nigeria is currently experiencing recession pangs; the times are so hard it feels like the Sani Abacha years. Nigeria is in a poor shape, people are desperate and therefore vulnerable and in such a situation, they say, it is only fair to pity fellow Nigerians who invested their lifeblood in the MMM.
There is an element of truth in these but they are not entirely correct. The recession definitely has to do with the almost hysteric manner people have embraced Ponzi schemes but does not fully explain why there are at least eight of them going on in Nigeria right now and they all have patrons who passionately proselytise for each. Around 2007/08, people also fell victim to Wonder Banks and lost tons of money. What is primarily responsible for people’s involvement in pyramid schemes is greed, simple. Greed is a universal human failing; societies evolved laws to regulate greed and prevent us from having each other for lunch on the same day.
One cannot, however, talk about the popularity of Ponzi schemes without also acknowledging how our society’s belief system has encouraged magical thinking about money and the ways it can be multiplied. From urban legends recycled in Nollywood that promote ideas about money rituals, to politicians who flaunt wealth before the public even when there is scant evidence of their productivity, to the prosperity gospel regularly preached in churches, people are so vulnerable that they can be played for suckers.
I once attended a church service with a friend a while ago where the pastor asked us to “sow seeds into the kingdom” and he would prophesy that God would make us “billionaires”. We were at least 5,000 people in the church, how was it possible for all of us to be billionaires? The United States has the highest population of billionaires in the world and they have only 540 of them. How can God raise so many billionaires from a single church and in a country where we do not even produce pencils? Yet, all around me people enthused shouts of “Amen! I receive it!”
Our culture has promoted a mentality that individuals can make huge sums of money irrespective of the political and economic conditions of their country. People have been made to believe that they can extricate themselves from the destiny of their country because, well, their case is different. This sort of weightless individualism being promoted does not find a support structure in our society’s organising philosophy and therefore opens people up to dubious schemes.
When people have been taught that money can come as a miracle, do not be surprised when they believe virtually anything that turns them to pliable tools in the hands of swindlers.
Online, people see a picture of dollars, luxury cars, or some other markers of prosperity on a parody account of a popular preacher. To the image is appended a prayer that those “blessings” can be theirs and their eyes water at the possibility. Then, they are instructed thus, “If you believe, type Amen” and thousands proceed to do so; poor dupes who are sincerely convinced that there is some magic to merely typing “Amen” to a prayer that offers them what they never worked for.
Our value system has plunged to the point there is an acute disconnect between dignity of labour, hard work, honesty, ethics, and what we now call success; no surprise that young people fall for Ponzi schemes. My friend, a professor in a university, told me how astounded he was to find that his students were also involved in the MMM. They in fact, tried to recruit him. Our joint observation was that the MMM and other Ponzi schemes would do to the educated class what “Okada” did to the culture of apprenticeship in Nigeria – it provided a means of earning quick bucks for poor and struggling youths at the expense of building skillset. Young people who thought spending two or three years learning a trade was tedious and paid less were seduced into the futureless career of riding motorcycles for a living.
Today, Nigeria’s building contractors have had to travel as far as Benin Republic to find capable artisanal workers. In some years’ time, classrooms in our tertiary institutions would have abdicated their hallow and noble responsibility to nurture the nation’s intellectual class and turned to recruiting centres for Ponzi schemes. Why not? You have lawmakers and Pentecostal pastors who use the social media to unabashedly flaunt their sports cars which they drive on cratered Nigerian roads without being hit by a sense of irony. Their audience take note and conclude that certain kinds of superlative possibilities exist; they only need to find their share.
Yes, I understand the vulnerability of unlettered people who fall into the hands of fraudsters who, for instance, ask for their ATM PINs. What I do not understand is how people who can use the Internet to educate themselves can believe that a scheme that turns over at the rate of 30 per cent monthly is legitimate. On the MMM website, you are asked to type an amount into “Happiness calculator” which links to a webpage where you see a chart of your money as it multiplies. If you type in N5,000, “Happiness calculator” shows it can go up as much as N100,000 plus in 12 months. If you are the greedy type, you will add a couple of more zeroes to your N5,000 and begin to salivate when “Happiness calculator” multiplies it beyond your expectation. If you are the Obierika character in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the kind of person who thinks about things, you would question that kind of an unregulated enterprise that promises so much in such a short time.
In truth, we can blame the state of our country and the very constricted chances people have to access routes of prosperity they are aware exist elsewhere. For instance, Pentecostal Christians call themselves “kingdom investors” and when they put their money in dubious projects like the MMM too, they carry over the same register of enterprise and declare themselves “investors.” Their choice of vocabulary suggests a longing to put their money in savings portfolios and build their financial future like is done in stable economies. But when there is a lack in the society, churches and other Ponzi schemes rise and fill the gap. They give people chances to be called “investors” and those poor folks expend all manner of irrational arguments to legitimise those schemes.
One of the many things I found ironical about the MMM is the Marxist bent of their “ideology” pasted on their website. They argue that many people will work but will never amount to anything because the financial system of the world itself runs like a Ponzi scheme. On this note, they have a point but their truth is so overstretched it snaps like a rubber band. Modern banking systems, for instance, may run like a pyramid scheme but they are regulated, they do not offer outlandish profits, and they make legitimate business investments. They are not perfect but they are far more transparent than the MMM. For all the MMM’s raves and rants against the enslaving financial systems of this world and their destruction of people at the bottom to sustain the wealth of those at the top, it does not urge them to overthrow their oppressors. Instead, it merely offers them schemes that encourage them to join the party.